The Mayor’s Commission on Communities of Color didn’t issue a formal statement on the death of George Floyd, the black man killed May 25 in the custody of Minneapolis police officers, but they spoke about the challenges facing the nation and their roles in making Superior a more equitable community for all residents.
“There has been criticism that this commission hasn’t spoken out sooner or that the city hasn’t issued an official statement,” said Councilor Jenny Van Sickle, an Alaskan Native of Tlingit and Athabaskan heritage. “And the truth is that when you have a community that is grieving, we need to allow them the space and time to collectively think and put those together.”
Van Sickle was appointed to the commission in February. The commission's meeting on Thursday, June 11 was the first since January because of the COVID-19 pandemic. A date for the commission's next meeting has not yet been set. The commission was created in 2018 to identify barriers to opportunity and full participation for people of color in Superior.
Stephan Witherspoon, commission chairman and president of the NAACP in Duluth, said he has been out with protesters "every night making sure our young people are safe, making sure they can speak up, speak out safely, positively.”
However, he said it was disheartening that leaders in the city of Superior didn't turn out in greater numbers at the peaceful protest at the Government Center on June 4.
"We didn’t get much city councilors, or the fire police commission. I think our community needs to feel validated. We need people to show up," he said. "When they ask me what they can do, and they are allies, I say ‘Hey, we need our white allies to stand up for us. Fight for us and with us.'”
When people aren’t speaking up against racism, that’s part of the problem, Witherspoon said.
Commissioner Deonne Nelson said she was glad to see Mayor Jim Paine at the June 4 protest.
“I ran into him. That was positive support,” she said.
Nelson moved to Superior two years ago to take a teaching job at Northern Lights Elementary School, a position she held for one year before not being invited back. Safety was one of her main concerns.
“I think what’s important in this community is that we all feel safe,” she said.
Van Sickle referenced a 2019 study by researchers at Rutgers University, Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, and the University of Michigan that found police use of force is the sixth leading cause of death for young black men. While 39 in 100,000 white men and boys are likely to be killed when police use force, the rate is about 2.5 times higher for black men and boys — 100 in 100,000.
The risk to women being killed by police is significantly lower, but black women and girls are 1.4 times more likely to be killed by police use of force than white women and girls. American Indian and Alaska Native men and women and Latino men also face a higher risk of being killed by police than white people, according to the study. Only Latino women and Asian/Pacific Islander men and women faced a lower risk.
Van Sickle said it's critical the commission develop policies to protect city residents for decades to come because political winds will shift.
“Now is not the time to be comfortable,” Van Sickle said. “We have to build a positive relationship between police and the citizens that it serves.”
Paine, who initiated the creation of the commission, said the work they do will have a long-lasting effect on city policy, not just police policy.
“It’s our turn to look at the actual institutional changes that we can affect,” Paine said. “You are a formal body of the city of Superior … you have real power and the policies you propose will be considered by the elected officials that will hopefully enact them. I pledge to be your ally in this effort.”